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Collisions with COVID: Impacts on Northwest Michigan tourism industry

Mike Krebs
Traverse City Record Eagle
Masked pedestrians walk on East Front Street in Traverse City on Friday, July 24.

Tourist communities are keeping their fingers crossed for good summer travel numbers during the coronavirus outbreak. Events they rely on to boost revenue are facing cancellations, sometimes for the first time in their history.


In Traverse City, organizers don’t dispute the need for COVID-related precautions that caused them to cancel area large-scale events, but economic and social impacts still are unfurling across the region.



“We’re hurting but we’re okay and we’re healthy and that’s all that matters,” executive director of the National Cherry Festival Kat Paye said.


This year, the cherry traditions were replaced with virtual events, a porch parade, and gift bags called ‘festival in a bag’ for people to throw an at home celebration.

Without the traditional festival, tourism dollars have been lost. She says the event annually contributes about 24 million dollars to the Grand Traverse Region. 

On top of that, Paye says last year, the festival foundation directly donated over 140 thousand dollars to nonprofit organizations in the community. 

“We will not be able to do that this year," Paye said. "A lot of nonprofits rely on us to help them get through their year and unfortunately we’re just not in a position to do so due to everything going on in our society.”

Coronavirusimpacts have been felt across Traverse City and into the show ring.

Competitors still showed up for the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival, but it looked very different. The Flintfields Horse Park is all outdoors, the 88 acres of land that make physical distancing easy. But this year, the arena was closed off to the public. 

"It’s definitely a disappointment, obviously I know a lot of people in town are disappointed not just because the way we have to do it here but you know all of the different events that take place in Traverse City, " Cody Brown, marketing director with the Traverse City Horse Shows said.  


To make events happen this summer, Health and Safety manager, Caitlin Lane said guidelines were set based on national and local regulations. 

“Biosecurity is pretty built in to what a lot of our competitors are doing with managing their horses and their barns, so everyone’s used to being clean and sanitizing and all of that but just the extra measures remembering to wear a mask, and to wipe everything down,” Lane said.   

While spectators couldn’t attend the show and festivals were canceled around Traverse City, tourists still find ways to enjoy time up north. 

A lot of people have been traveling north, from early in the season when downstate restaurants and bars closed heading into Independence Day.        

Trevor Tkach is with the Traverse City Tourism Bureau. He said although people are coming into town, they're spending differently, spending less money or time in the area because it's not as much of an attraction in the city center.

At the Riverside Inn, owner Kate Vilter has been dealing with people treating a dine out experience like a normal summer day. She says efforts to keep people safe were met with customer shenanigans. 

“People would agree to our policies out front with the greeter that they needed to wear the masks whenever they were not seated at the table and then when that actually came to happen they refused,” Vilter said.

As a result, Vilter said heading into the summer travel season she removed bar stools and closed down the bar to avoid conflict.


Vilter said in a non-COVID summer, she’d be seating 3 to 4 times as many people as she does right now.


“We eventually made it so we are only outside dining and with social distancing we really only have about 11 tables to work with,” Vilter said.

She said June through August is when she makes the bulk of her earnings for the year. 

“It’s very difficult for me to try to imagine what things are going to be like when I get to November, December of this year and I don’t have the cash flow that I had in the summertime,” Vilter said.

Tkach said early projections show it will take 3 to 4 years for the local economy to recover. 

“That’s not unique to us, it’s just how it's going to be, it’s how it was after the recession, it’s how it was after 9/11," he said. "It takes a long time to build back up. So you can have small wins, like a decent summer but you're still well behind where you were prior to the incident - in this case the virus.”

The uncertainty of the pandemic has continued since the beginning of the crisis, now local businesses and the entire region continue to work to hold on for the rest of the year.

This story was produced as part of the Michigan News Group internship program, a collaboration between WCMU and local newspapers. You can see the print edition of this story in the Sunday edition of the Traverse-City Record Eagle.

Tess DeGayner is a student reporter for WCMU News. She is a senior at Central Michigan University studying Journalism and Broadcasting. Her hometown is Fenton, Michigan.